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DVD-Audio: Is This the "META" Format?

Mark Waldrep

February 2000 | By now, most consumers have heard of the DVD-Video format and many have even invested in the technology. This Christmas season manufacturers are expecting the installed base of DVD-Video players to top 5 million or roughly 5 percent of all families. In my household, the thought of renting a VHS movie at the local Blockbuster outlet is out of the question. The battle over the DVD-Video format is over and the success of the format is assured. However, the approach of the DVD-Audio format and the degree of confusion that it will bring to the world of DVD are unsettling and have already delayed the format's introduction by several months. Why so much confusion?

Let's start by looking at the compatibility of the format with the existing base of DVD-Video players and home theater audio/video receivers. Software for the new DVD-Audio format may be able to play in a DVD-Video player if the producers have included a "video zone" on the disc. Today, there are as many different approaches to the inclusion of the materials for the DVD-Video-compatible zone as there are major record labels. One company said that they won't place anything in this portion of their productions, effectively making them completely incompatible with any existing machine. Other companies may place a Dolby Digital or DTS version of the high-resolution 5.1 surround tracks in the video zone, ensuring that consumers have at least something to play in their existing systems. Still another label plans to place a 96kHz/24-bit stereo mix of the music for playback on DVD-Video decks.

And then there's the question of how well the music is protected from piracy if there are 5.1 mixes or high-resolution versions outside of the DVD-Audio section of the disc where the new watermarking and CSS-2 encryption schemes are effective. This is especially important in light of the recent hacking of the DVD-Video CSS encryption scheme. With all the best intent on the part of dozens of companies and hundreds of people, the issue of ultimately securing music placed on a disc (or the Web for that matter) remains a troubling question. The Secure Digital Music Initiative) championed by the RIAA and the major labels may suffer the same fate as the DVD-Video protection system.

The physical connection between a DVD-Audio (Universal or Combi) player and an audio/video receiver will require several more cables than your existing setup. Currently, most DVD-Video players are linked to the receiver via a single coaxial (or optical) digital cable that carries a multiplexed stream of digital data representing all the channels of a 5.1 mix. This "encoded" signal is "decoded" according to its type (Dolby Digital and/or DTS) and passed to the amplification circuitry of the receiver. DVD-Audio players will have the same digital outputs for encoded digital audio streams, but will also be able to output high-resolution analog signals. A series of six connections on the back of the player will be connected to six inputs on the receiver, one for each of the five full-range channels and an additional channel for the subwoofer. Meaning that anyone who has purchased an A/V receiver without this capability won't be able to play the high-resolution MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) audio even though they own one of the new DVD-Audio players. This will definitely slow the acceptance of the format and cause the early adopters of the video specification to grumble.

The packaging of DVD-Audio software is another issue in search of a unified industry-wide solution. Once again, consensus among the major record labels is elusive. For years, compact discs have been delivered to retailers and consumers in flimsy plastic jewel cases with easily breakable hinges. For better or worse, shelving for CDs packed in this manner has established itself at retail, in households, and in automobiles. With a new music format on the horizon, record companies and merchants must decide how to package DVD-Audio software. The DVD-Video de facto standard is the plastic clam shell box made by several manufacturers. It's the same height as a VHS video box, but about half the width and slightly deeper.

In the minds of the major labels, DVD-Audio is the logical successor to the compact disc and, therefore, might be best packaged in a jewel case with a sticker or other obvious designation that the box contains a DVD disc and not a traditional CD. Arguments have been put forward to create a new jewel case specifically for the new format. The new package would be one inch taller than the existing box so that it would be easily differentiated from current CDs in the same retail bin. Maybe, the DVD-Video "clamshell" type is sufficient for these new music releases, especially if they are designed to be compatible with existing DVD-Video players. Disc manufacturers equipped with automatic packaging machines for standard jewel cases and "clamshell" video boxes may not rush out to acquire new machinery until the market establishes a single package type.

Obviously, there are no simple solutions to these and other tough choices associated with the new DVD-Audio format. Production tools are currently expensive and difficult to use and the level of understanding of the format among record company executives, artists, and engineers is limited and difficult to acquire. As I've stated in this column on previous occasions, DVD-Audio is a tremendous format and I believe it will ultimately become the "meta" DVD format, encompassing all forms of digital media and serve as a high bandwidth link to the Internet. Only time will tell if the proponents of DVD-Audio can get it right.

Mark Waldrep (mwaldrep@aixentertainment.com), regular columnist for DVD Between the Lines, is founder and President of AIX Entertainment, Inc. and Pacific Coast Sound Works, Inc. He has been involved in all areas of interactive multimedia development and audio production since the mid-1980s, and is the inventor of i-trax, a hybrid audio and data CD format.

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